In Depth

Under the Knife

Despite Increased Interest in Medical Issues, Media Outlets Are Cutting Health Care Coverage

The bad economy has been a double whammy for journalists: Not only have the funds in their 401(k)s disappeared, but so have the media outlets they work for.

At first, health care journalists seemed impervious to the axes falling in media organizations. “With regard to layoffs, health care journalism lagged behind some other areas in journalism because the topic is of great interest to viewers,” said Trudy Lieberman, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and director of the health and medicine reporting program at the Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York.

“But many are losing their jobs now,” she continued. “Health journalism is now caught up in it. I think our business is in big trouble.”

A March report to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “The State of Health Care Journalism” by Gary Schwitzer, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, reveals the extent of the damage.

The report was based on a review of published research on health journalism and a survey of almost 260 AHCJ members conducted by KFF and AHCJ, as well as Mr. Schwitzer’s one-on-one interviews with more than 50 journalists who work (or worked) for TV stations, newspapers, radio, magazines or Web sites.

Mr. Schwitzer reported that the average length of TV news pieces is dropping below 45 seconds. Nine out of 10 journalists said bottom-line pressure is “seriously hurting the quality of health news coverage” and 39% said it was very likely or somewhat likely their position would be eliminated in the next three years.

At the same time, the report also showed that the news hole for TV health journalism—between 7% and 11% of airtime—has remained stable over the last 10 years. In fact, twice as many journalists (38%) said the amount of health coverage had increased as said it had gone down (18%).

The seeming contradiction can be explained by the fact that many TV stations and newspapers are getting content from wire services and subscription services, such as Ivanhoe, and Medstar Television.

“At the same time, journalists now have to produce a lot more content, which means fewer in-depth stories are being produced,” Mr. Schwitzer said. “There’s greater pressure from advertisers and PR firms. There’s no denying I heard a great deal of unhappiness in health care journalists among all media across the country.”

Even so, subscription services said their business is stable, but not booming. “We haven’t seen a drop in interest in medical reporting,” said Marjorie Bekaert Thomas, president/co-founder of Ivanhoe, which has a client base of more than 250 TV network affiliates. “But we’ve seen stations take longer to decide whether to commit to a two- or three-year contract. They’re being more cautious on everything.”

Ivanhoe has seen growth in providing video to Internet sites, as has Medstar Television, which provides TV stations with a Web-only “extra” every week. Also, Medstar is in beta trials with a video-on-demand experiment for condition-specific stories with Comcast in Indianapolis, said Ron Petrovich, Medstar’s VP of medical news.

Reliance on subscription services is a cause for concern among some health care journalism experts. “They’re almost always single-source stories,” said independent journalist-author Andrew Holtz, an AHCJ board member and former CNN medical reporter. “The overwhelming preponderance is about medical services, and they air the opinions of the providers of those services. That’s not solid, broad-based skeptical reporting.”

Mr. Schwitzer reserves his scorn for those under-45-second rip-and-read stories. “Because they’re so short and don’t give you any meat, you don’t know how good the evidence was. If TV health news was your predominant source of health news information, you’d be puzzled at how we could still have cancer or heart disease or diabetes, because we’re getting breakthroughs every night.”

The bright spot in this otherwise gloomy picture is new media. The Internet has no space constraints, and multimedia—print, video, audio and interactive graphics—enables journalists to tell more nuanced stories.

Ms. Lieberman, a print journalist who now blogs, sees the changes as “liberating.” “I’m looking upon it as the glass half-full,” she said. “The challenge is to use the new media to tell your stories in different ways, to mix and match the different media, and that’s very exciting.”

She also said the media tracks at CUNY’s program have been erased. “A lot of our graduates who thought they were in print are now doing video,” she said. “Print, broadcast, Web … the lines are blurring.”

Even more encouraging has been the recent founding of two foundation-supported investigative news services, ProPublica, primarily funded by the Sandler Foundation, which began publishing in June, and Kaiser Health News (KHN), an effort of the Kaiser Family Foundation that launched in early 2009 with veteran health care journalists Laurie McGinley and Peggy Girshman as executive editors. Veteran USA Today health care reporter Julie Appleby recently joined KHN as senior correspondent. According to Ms. Lieberman, the nascent KHN received 300 applications for a handful of jobs.

Out of the fray of bottom-line concerns, these news organizations are rare oases in an embattled field. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Ornstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his health care and health policy reporting, joined ProPublica with his writing partner Tracy Weber in August.

“We were very happy at the paper, but last year we decided that, given the direction journalism was going in, we were interested in being part of a solution,” Mr. Ornstein explained. “ProPublica is very much at the forefront of presenting an alternative model.”